Standing at the doorway of a new year and just about to put a foot forwards, I realise there are certain words that I wish for myself during the journey through the next twelve months. Pausing and reflecting (a good time to do this, today, with a pale grey light in the window and the sound of rain on the glass) I know there are things I want to embrace and other things that I want to let go. These are not resolutions exactly, nor even intentions – they’re more in the way of senses, feelings, perhaps ways of being, and to write about them or try to explain them in anything more than a whisper would be to bring them under a harsh spotlight that will not help me remember them any better.
I don’t set goals. But I like the idea of way-markers, or torches to light a gloomy bit of path, or firesides to come home to.
So here for the next few days I’ll share a handful of these – whatever you like to call them. They’re like one-word letters addressed to myself, to carry with me on the next bit of the journey, and at the end of the year I’ll be able to spread them out and look at them, and gaze at the way I’ve come, and ponder….
I find it hard to know what to say these days. This last week, watching the new order play out under newly installed president Trump has been a bit like standing in a blizzard. I’ve found it hard to take in, and exhausting; if it’s having this effect on me here in Britain, I can only imagine how it feels on the other side of the Atlantic. When my thoughts are in a tangle, I write; when I can’t think, I draw, and often I discover more that way.
My local museum has a cabinet with a miscellaneous collection of objects from the first world war and on Thursday, the day Theresa May travelled to Washington as the first world leader to meet Donald Trump I found myself standing in front of this display drawing strands of barbed wire from the trenches on the western front. I don’t have the words to describe how I felt, studying this stuff, thinking about what it means to create barriers of this kind and the horrors of what this did. I stood there drawing and thinking about walls, and fences, and detention centres; about refusing refugees. About people who are now living in increasing uncertainty and fear, and how the whole world is now a more uncertain place for everyone.
I thought a lot after I’d come home with this drawing about what its opposite would be. Closing my eyes and drifting off to sleep that night I thought about Amnesty International’s symbol of a burning candle surrounded by barbed wire……..
Faced with such immediate threats to democracy, to freedom of speech and freedom of movement, being fed lies and witnessing ever more division and racism and hatred –it’s hard to know what to do, what to say, or how to say it. It’s overwhelming and intimidating, and it’s easy to feel that there’s nothing I could do that could possibly make the slightest difference. But neither can I bear to stand by and not do anything. I keep thinking of those words of Edmund Burke’s, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” As true today as it was 200 years ago (except that today he would have said men and women). I can’t go on marches, the way thousands did last weekend all around the world. I can support organisations like Amnesty, I can show solidarity and add my signature to petitions and write to my MP. But none of these make me feel as if I’m creating any light in the darkness.
I spend the first few minutes of every day after waking up simply filling the landscape of my heart and mind with light. I imagine I’m watching the sun rise and I watch it hit the tops of distant mountains and gradually flow down the slopes and into every valley. I consciously try to feel the warmth of the sun, and I greet it with every part of me. If I can start the day filled with light, it makes a difference to the way I read the news, the way I talk over breakfast with my husband, the way I think when I go out shopping, when I drive the car, when I speak to the assistant at the supermarket checkout. I smile more often. I think fewer dark thoughts, I’m less anxious and more relaxed.
I think this can produce a chain reaction. I think it often does.
Like a tiny ant, I’m not going to look up at the towering ant-hill above me and think, I can’t do this, building this is beyond me. I can simply be a good ant and do what I can as well as possible – and actually that feels good. And then I realise that there are thousands – millions – of us out there doing the same thing, glowing not terribly brightly but glowing all the same, and together we’re lighting the darkness like a string of fairy lights.
It’s almost two months since I wrote anything here. After two months of hard work and exhaustion, when at the end of every day I could hardly think, let alone read, let alone write, I’d wanted my first post on returning to be full of gladness. But at the end of those two months, just as I was beginning to feel I might be about to surface again, we here in Britain have plunged over a cliff and are are falling into the unknown.
It seems impossible in the face of this to write what I’d hoped to write. I’m not going to try to put into words how dismayed I am at this decision, a choice that was always far too complex and much, much too important to have been made in this way.
I’m not one to shrink from reality, so I’m not going to bury my head in the sand. We are all going to have to ride this out, like white water rafting, and trust that we won’t perish in the rapids. And after too many metaphors in just two sentences, I’m left with this; the certainty that what will carry us through is attention to small things, the things that frame and form the bigger ones. Listening to each other. Stopping to look. Stopping to make tea. Greeting each other with a smile.
No one can say where all this is going to lead, or even who will lead us, but we can still make choices. We can turn to each other with love, and listen; we can do all the little things that will begin to help us heal.
I’m going down deep. Every hour or so When I’m edgy and rattled, confused, I’m going to breathe slow, and simply let go.
I’m going up high. I’m going to lie on a cloud and head for the sky! I’ll put everything else to one side and just go for a ride.
I’m going down deep, and I’m going up high, but I’m not going far. An infinite distance is right where we are.
One of the things about ME (or chronic fatigue syndrome) is that you have much less than most people of what in a computer is called RAM – random access memory – the part of your brain that can quickly recover things that you’re currently concerned with, and lets you do one thing while mentally stacking up a fair few others in the background. I can’t do this. If I try, or if I have to do it for more than about a minute, I crash, just like a computer with not much RAM. And I mean crash – both mentally and physically.
This has been happening a lot lately, and so I’ve been gently steering myself into calmer waters. Coping with ME a lot of the time involves trying to create new neural pathways, and at the pace of a snail, or a glacier, changing the patterns that are hard-wired in my brain.
There are lots of ways to do this. Lying on my back with my eyes shut, and letting words slide about without interfering with them until they arrange themselves into a poem is just one.
Sometimes drawing the everyday is not at all an every day thing. When you know something is going to happen, when there’s a goodbye to be said.
Polly was only with us for a little over a year but she was more than 20 years old; she was mostly well, just increasingly stiff, a bit deaf, only able to eat a little at a time. And during that time she was gradually more conversational (she had a range of sounds that steadily expanded as well as a very expressive silent miaow for talking face to face at close quarters) and increasingly more loving. From above she looked like a bundle of autumn leaves. Underneath she was creamy white, silky soft, and she had the smallest little round front paws on any cat I’ve ever seen. She was gentle, polite, determined, and as time wore on a bit absent minded.
Old age catches up. Eventually there was more pain from arthritis, and then other failings. It’s so hard to know when it’s time to say enough is enough, but when the suffering gets to a certain point you know the time has come to let go.
Yesterday was that day. The rest of the day was full of sadness and the days to come will still feel empty and strange. I find myself still speaking her name and expecting to see her when I open a door or come into a room. Her chair is empty. Her dishes all put away, the litter tray gone, her basket packed up and hidden in the garage. Tears come suddenly at unexpected moments when I know her to be gone. Once again we are going through the pain of losing a friend, a special companion, a small creature who came to us because she wanted to and decided to stay. We loved her, and we won’t forget.
Love never stops.
I heard through the WordPress cyber-grapevine that yesterday was Draw a Bird Day. (I wonder sometimes how many days designated for this or that there are in the course of a year – and how they come into being. It seems there’s almost no activity that doesn’t have its own special day.) Anyway I went up to the museum a few days ago where I sketched this macaw because of an article I read last week on parrots and healing post traumatic stress – and after having learnt such surprising things recently about crows, this fascinated me even more.
I’ve always known that parrots are sensitive and highly intelligent but I was deeply moved by this piece from the New York Times titled What Do Parrots Know About PTSD, and I’ll never think about parrots in the same way again. (It’s a longish read, but if you do skip any of it, whatever you do don’t miss the final paragraph).
There’s so much we have to learn from other living creatures, so much we can give to each other if we are attentive, respectful, compassionate. As I sketched this macaw I wished I knew more about it; I don’t even know if it’s a male or a female – and what sort of a life did he or she have? Who did she live with? Who cared for her? Who loved her and who did she love?
It seems I always come away from a drawing with more questions than answers.
I’m exploring drawing, and fear, and particularly the way drawing something that’s troubling or scary can affect the way I feel about it. This is part 3.
I may be scared of spiders (but less so, having drawn one and seen how lovely it was), but I’m not afraid of crows – though some people are. I wanted to see if drawing one would tell me anything about that fear – and if I could understand it.
This is a rook, not a crow, and I felt nothing but fascination, drawing it.
Rooks and crows are part of the same family and easily mistaken for each other – they’re both big and black; in many cultures they’re associated with death and if you encounter one close up, they can be alarming. Particularly if you’re being mobbed by a group of them. Perhaps this behaviour is why they’re known collectively as a murder of crows. A group of rooks, on the other hand, is called a parliament (because they’re sociable and talkative); but a gathering of ravens is called an unkindness.
I don’t know why this should be, but the word itself, unkindness, strikes me as being a close companion to fear; as related as rooks and ravens are to crows. Fear is unkind.
We humans choose at times not merely to defend ourselves (as crows do when mobbing a threat or a predator) but to deliberately cause fear and to terrorise each other, the most extreme form of unkindness. If you know how it feels to be afraid, then the threat of fear itself can make you very vulnerable. I know what it’s like; I am afraid of fear.
It’s an emotion that’s powerfully easy to transmit. We can pass it on to each other in a heartbeat and spread it like a virus that can quickly take root – and often it can be totally unfounded, or frighteningly misplaced. There are things we should be frightened of – but we really need to make sure we identify those things – or those people – with the greatest care and attention.
Amazingly, it seems that crows can do this really well. They have the ability to recognise individual human faces, at least as accurately as we do and probably better. And they remember which humans have done something to harm or frighten them – and then pass this information on to other crows, who learn precisely which individual humans to be wary of. They don’t change their attitude towards humans in general – just the specific ones they recognise as a problem.
This kind of accuracy requires paying very close attention – the kind of observation that happens when you draw – and it’s something we humans often fail to do. We make generalisations that are not informed enough, and end up frightening ourselves and getting panicky when we don’t need to. The sheer quantity of fear swirling around at the moment is out of all proportion to any terrorism that may be real; when Donald Trump says ban all muslims from entering the US, when asylum seekers homes are attacked or vandalised, when muslim women are verbally abused in public – fear is fueling fear, escalating as it goes and sweeping up everyone it touches.
Drawing makes me notice things – and not just the object that I’m drawing. I realise that the more drawing I do, the more observant I am generally all the time. The more I look the more I understand, and then I’m more likely to recognise what I’m seeing and be able to respond appropriately. So drawing does more than calm our fears and help to dispel them – it helps identify precisely what or who we should be frightened of in the first place.
If I practise enough, maybe I’ll get to be as discerning as a crow.